Looking at the Class 5A rankings, a trend starts to develop. Five of the top 10 teams in the state call Gwinnett home. Two regions, Regions 7 and 8 in Class 5A are made up entirely of Gwinnett County schools and they are considered by many to be the most difficult in the state.
“I think that we’re the best in the United States as far as high school football. Regions 7 and 8 are probably as tough as any around,” according to Collins Hill head coach Kevin Reach. These two regions have gotten so competitive that coaches are setting out to make as tough a non-region schedule as possible to prepare their team for the battles they will face later in the season.
But don’t think these guys are afraid of the competition. North Gwinnett head coach Bob Sphire feels that, “To play against that level of competition is not only challenging, it’s exciting.”
HOW TOUGH IT IS …
Five of the nine schools in Region 8 are capable of winning a state championship in any given year. Those schools are Dacula, Grayson, Brookwood, South Gwinnett and Parkview. Four teams in Region 7 ─ North Gwinnett, Peachtree Ridge, Norcross and Collins Hill ─ are just as capable.
“You might go down to South Georgia, they might have one or two [good schools],” said Norcross head coach Keith Maloof. “But when you’re talking about in the same area 10 high schools that at some point in time could win a state championship within a 15 mile radius.”
The kids at these schools are playing against the same kids they go to church with and see around town, and the old adage goes: familiarity breeds content. And whenever two Gwinnett programs get together, there’s a rivalry.
“You know you’ve got to bring your A-game every night and being in such close quarters you know you take a lot of pride being from the same county system,” said Sphire. “It’s really neat, this is my fifth year and you get a lot of what I would consider a good ole family rivalry.”
These are close rivalries as well. Over the last six years in Region 7, North Gwinnett and Norcross are 3-3 against each other. Norcross is also 3-3 against Peachtree Ridge, and Peachtree Ridge is 4-2 against Collins Hill over that time. These schools have been neck and neck for a while and races are only getting tighter.
“It’s just going to get tougher and tougher year in and year out,” said Maloof. “But you know if you’re going to be good down the road you have got to get through this region.”
Region 8 has been just as tight, as Dacula is 2-2 over the last four meetings against both Brookwood and Parkview. Grayson has an identical record against Brookwood, but the Rams are 4-0 against Parkview and 2-0 against Dacula in that span. Grayson will look to continue their streak over the Falcons Friday.
THE COMING WEEKS …
In fact, the next two weekends will tell us a lot about where teams in these two regions stand. This weekend North Gwinnett takes on Norcross in a game that pits No. 2 in the state versus No. 7, respectively, in a matchup of top teams from Region 7. If Norcross can manage to get past the Bulldogs they will be met next week by the No. 3 team in the state, Peachtree Ridge.
“I built a non-region schedule like I did because I knew we needed to play tough opponents early so it would get us ready for our region schedule, and it’s just a brutal region and you’ve got to be ready to play every Friday night,” said Coach Maloof.
Peachtree Ridge has its own test this week before facing Norcross when they welcome Collins Hill, another tough region foe. Lions head coach Bill Ballard knows that even though the Eagles have dropped out of the top 10, they are not a team to be taken lightly. “It’s a little scary, you have a very tough opponent in Collins Hill and they throw the ball extremely well.”
Region 8 has its own round robin of top teams in the coming weeks. This weekend, the top two teams in the region will face each other when No. 9 Dacula welcomes No. 10 Grayson. As the last two undefeated teams in the region, the winner of this game will control their own destiny regarding becoming the region champion. However, neither team can let their guard down as Dacula will face South Gwinnett the following week and Grayson takes on Parkview.
MUTUAL RESPECT …
In such close and heated rivalries there would be hard feelings or ill will towards the other schools in the county. That is hardly the case as these coaches recognize a job well done when they see it.
“[We] have great respect for everybody we play against and the jobs that they do,” said Sphire. “I’ve been able to watch firsthand how hard they all work, how much they put their heart and soul into it.”
Sphire went on to say of the other schools in the county, “I have a great respect for the jobs that are being done and it makes it that much more challenging to try and live up to the standards that are set here in Gwinnett county… we have great pride in our region. You want to see those folks, when they step out of the region, do well against other regions.”
Sphire isn’t the only coach in the county that feels this way.
Peachtree Ridge head coach Bill Ballard sees another thing Gwinnett schools have in common. “We have a lot of kids that are able to go play college ball because they do well enough academically that they qualify for the scholarships.”
In Gwinnett, the rivalries are full of respect and mutual admiration. The players grow up with each other and the coaches respect their counterparts.
Because where success lives, winning and losing are not the only things that matter.
Contributors: Stephen Black